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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK
Australian sent wrong Iraq body
Undated photograph of Jake Kovco
Jake Kovco was fatally shot in Baghdad
Prime Minister John Howard has said sorry to the widow of the first member of the Australian military killed in Iraq after she was sent the wrong body.

The angry widow of Private Jacob Kovco called Mr Howard after the mistake was discovered late on Wednesday.

Another body, believed to be that of an eastern European soldier, was flown to Australia while Pte Kovco's corpse remained in a mortuary in Kuwait.

The 25-year-old soldier died in a firearms accident in Baghdad last week.

Pte Kovco was due to be buried near the southern city of Melbourne with full military honours.

Mr Howard said he understood Shelley Kovco's anger and said he had apologised to the widow, who has two young children.

"I just want to say how incredibly sorry I am for what has happened and I wish in some way I could have altered it but I can't," Mr Howard told an Australian radio station.

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said a private mortuary in Kuwait appeared to be responsible for the mistake, and that the Australian government had launched an inquiry.

Opposition defence spokesman Robert McClelland called for an immediate change to the contracting out of the handling of bodies of Australian defence personnel killed overseas.

"I think all Australians would have expected that in the case of an injured or deceased service man or woman that at all times it be dealt with by the Australian military," he said.

Australia has about 900 troops serving with the US-led coalition in Iraq.

'Fiddling' with gun

Pte Kovco's family is also angry about the circumstances of the soldier's death.

The 25-year-old died after his own gun discharged in his room.

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson denied earlier reports that Pte Kovco was cleaning his gun at the time, but repeated that it appeared to be an accident, and there was no evidence the other two soldiers in the room with him were involved.

"He was doing something other than handling his firearm and in the process of fiddling about with the other equipment he had, it would appear, that in some way he's knocked his gun and it's discharged," The Age reported him as saying.

But his family said that he was an accomplished soldier who had grown up with guns, and was unlikely to have made a mistake.

"We're never going to be told the truth about what happened to him," said his cousin, Adam Backman.

"The story changes and changes and changes."

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